Scientia Potentia est - Knowledge is Power

Message by Anja Kathrin Meierkord

 

Yesterday night I went on the Breitbart news website. After some scrolling through latest news articles, including one on “Trump’s ‘amazing’ success in signing more bills than any president in 50 years”, I stumbled over an article from April this year:

 

“5 scientific facts the ‘Science March’ has yet to acknowledge” it headlined.

The five facts were:

  1. There are only two genders

  2. Race is not a social construct

  3. Green Energy is Inefficient

  4. Inequality is not predominantly socially constructed (which upon closer examination revealed that the writer didn’t actually know what social construction was)

  5. Men and women are born different.

 

I felt a wave of outrage, decided that these “scientific facts “were entirely unscientific, closed the Breitbart news tab and switched over to the guardian website.

 

I was greeted by an article, which stated that “This was Trumps worst week so far” and clicked my way through to the lifestyle section, where – to my surprise – I read about Bright Lights Tom blind date with a 23-year old female head hunter, until I found an article which stated that “Drinking in moderation helps to protect the heart”. A scientific study had found. I was happy to accept that the guardian was telling me the truth, reached for my glass of red wine and closed my laptop.

 

When I talk to my friends, I understand that this behaviour is quite typical. When we read anything ‘scientific’ in the guardian or any other trusted news outlet (whatever that may be for you), we take it at face value. We don’t question where the scientific facts came from and how they were generated. When we read something ‘scientific’ in outlets we consider ‘fake news’, we are often happy to dismiss the claims made in a heartbeat.

 

And what is so wrong about that you may ask? We are not all scientists and even those who are have detailed knowledge only about a tiny tiny area of research in the scientific universe. Shouldn’t we be able to trust some news outlets outright?

 

My view on this is no: we shouldn’t.

Because many journalists are no scientists either. And while science is often vague and full of caveats, that doesn’t make for a good news story, so any news article about a scientific finding is really ‘what the journalist made of the findings’ rather than the actual findings. I therefore think it is important to try to gain the skills and knowledge that help get closer to understanding if something is ‘true’ or not.

 

So how do we start investigating if scientific facts are true or not? Are there some simple guidelines we can follow?

Luckily many people are thinking about the issue of ‘fake news’ and ‘true news’ at the moment. The BBC for example has put together a list of questions, we should ask when being confronted with a new item:

  • Has the story been reported anywhere else?

  • Is it on the radio, TV or in the newspapers?

  • Have you heard of the organisation that published the story?

  • Does the website where you found the story look genuine?

  • Does the website address at the very top of the page look real?

  • Does the photo or video look normal?

  • Does the story sound believable?

Facebook has issued a similar list online.

While this may be a good list for starting to think about fake news in the crudest sense, this list of questions does not satisfy me when thinking about scientific reporting. It puts a lot of emphasis on assessing the reputability and credibility of sources rather than investigating the news story itself. In the case of ‘scientific’ news, and that includes social science news such as results of opinion surveys for example, sometimes more is needed than just assessing the reputability of sources.

 

While I don’t have a full answer or list of questions to use to assess if something is ‘true’ or not

 

– you heard about me happily accepting a good news story about red wine earlier –

 

here are some questions I typically try to ask when reading a ‘science news article’:

  • Are sources to original scientific articles provided? Can I find these online? Can I read the abstract?

  • Does the news article describe the research methodology? If it doesn’t or if it describes it in a very complicated mathsy way, it is likely that the writer didn’t understand the methodology either. And how can anyone know if a scientific finding is valid if they haven’t understood the method?

  • Does the research methodology make sense to me? This may not be obvious and I have to admit that I come from an advantaged position of working as an applied social researcher. So I know my methods.

However, even with less prior knowledge I can gain some insights from the methodology: Does it seem like this based on anecdotal evidence? Does it look like data has been collected systematically? If it is based on a survey or other type of data collection how many people were included? Do we know anything about the representativeness of those people for the whole population - often social science experiments are done on university students which are certainly not representative?

  • Once I have understood the methodology, do the conclusions drawn seem logical?

  • Can I find any other research which confirms or contradicts this piece?

I certainly don’t ask myself this battery of questions for every ‘science news’ article I read. But I do try to go through this when the topics matters to me or the statements made in a specific article bug me.

 

However, this catalogue of questions comes with one caveat:

  • It assumes that an objective reality – ‘the truth’ – actually exists and it can be understood.

  • It assumes that we can uncover the truth through scientific inquiry, experimentation and deduction.

 

But what constitutes valid knowledge and reality is not uncontested. The branch of philosophy which deal with theories of knowledge, call my way of thinking about truth “being a positivist”. There are many other schools of thoughts:

 

Interpretivists think that the world and knowledge is created by individuals in groups and that context is the defining factor of what makes something “true”. They use qualitative methods to understand a person’s unique world view.

 

Critical Researchers think that ‘truth’ exists, but that it has been created by directed social bias. Through critical analysis, also taking a history view, they want to uncover the oppressed view behind the ‘truth’.

 

Pragmatists think that ‘truth is what is useful’ and that the best method is one that solves the problems.


 

My mind begins to spin every time I start thinking about how different people understand what ‘truth’ is. Whereas for me truth is so clear:

 

  • If I don’t find satisfactory answers to my catalogue of questions then I cannot accept this as true.

 

  • If I do find satisfactory answers to my catalogue of questions then I accept what I have read as truth until I am proven otherwise.

 

But this might not be universal advice and what you understand truth to be and how you think truth can be assessed may be individual to you. So maybe the best we can do is to gain an awareness of exactly that. To gain an awareness how we conceptualise truth and how we think truth can be assessed. And to use this as a starting point to enter discussions with other people about what they understand truth to be.

 

And to not accept science news as facts a priori no matter how reputable the source is. To close with a quote of Albert Einstein:

 

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”